Muhammad Ali Jr.
Muhammad Ali Jr., a son of Muhammad Ali, spoke during a forum on the consequences of President Trump’s immigration policies at the Capitol on Thursday. He was stopped at the airport the next day. Credit Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

There is little doubt the politics of fear – fear of different, fear of crime, fear of Muslims – have infected the tinier crannies of our lives these days.

At times, it appears that fear trumps common sense.

Being the son of perhaps the most famous sports icon in the world does not inoculate one from the human conditions triggered by this fear. Muhammad Ali Jr., son of the eponymous boxer whose name very few adults would not know, was detained on March 10 before boarding a flight from Reagan National Airport in Washington D. C. to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Ali was asked for his date of birth, his social security number, and where he was born despite handing a JetBlue agent his Illinois identity card. The agent then called Homeland Security. When Ali presented his passport, he was allowed onto the flight.

This was the second time in a month that Ali was detained at an airport, and only a day after Ali had testified at a forum in D. C. regarding President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

Of course, African Americans have been subject to this fear for centuries. And while race relations have improved visibly and measurably over the decades, one could argue there is still room for improvement. Ali’s story reminded me of the fastest man in the world in 1964, Bob Hayes, who won two gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics. He then came home and signed with the Dallas Cowboys to become a Hall of Fame wide receiver, and one of only two NFL Super Bowl champions who also brought home the gold in an Olympics.

Bob Hayes Dallas Cowboys
Bob Hayes #22 Dallas Cowboys

Only a few weeks after Bob Hayes won gold in the 100-meter dash and won national bragging rights to one of the biggest events of the biggest global sports competition, Hayes signed a contract with the Dallas Cowboys on December 8, 1964. This included a six-thousand -dollar Buick Rivera as part of Hayes’ signing bonus. Unfortunately, in the South in the Sixties, a black man driving an expensive car drew the suspicion of the police, regularly. In this account in his autobiography, Run, Bullet, Run, is how Hayes, arguably one of the most famous athletes in America at the time, was treated like a “boy” by local authorities.

That car caused me a little trouble when I got back to school. You see, there weren’t many black kids my age (I turned twenty two less than two weeks after I signed with the Cowboys) driving cars like that in good old Tallahassee. About once a week or so, some of Tallahassee’s finest would stop me and ask, “Boy, whose car is that?” I would tell them it was my car, and they would give me a ticket for anything they felt like – speeding, running a stop sign, driving on white folks’ streets – you name it.

I finally got smart. I went downtown and bought a chauffeur’s black cap and put it in the back seat. Every time the police pulled me over after that asked me whose car I was driving, I would say, “It’s my boss man’s car,” and they would let me go. This was the era when, while driving from Dallas back to Florida, I would pass restaurants all over Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama with signs that read, “No colored” or “Colored around back.” I was good enough to represent their country in the Olympics, but not good enough to eat with them.

1964 Buick Rivera

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Athletes
15 Sep 2000: The athletes gather during the athletes parade at the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Homebush Bay, Sydney, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Adam Pretty /Allsport

Yao Ming was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame on September 9, 2016. Only 8 years in the league, the 7 foot 6 inch center from the People’s Republic of China was one of the most influential players in international basketball, cementing China’s popular hold on basketball. When the 8-time NBA All Star played in his third Olympics at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he was one of the tallest athletes in the Olympic Village, and most certainly one of the most popular people in the world.

In a recent article penned by Yao Ming in The Players’ Tribune, he wrote about how the Olympics is so much bigger than one person, even bigger than the biggest person in the Olympics. He wrote about his first Olympics at the 2000 Sydney Games, and how he saw a wide-shot picture of the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies, when all of the nations’ athletes were standing in their national colors. He said he stared at the picture in frustration.

I was somewhere in that photo, way down there, but as hard as I looked I couldn’t find myself. I tried to locate our team. I knew we were somewhere on the track, walking around the stadium. But I couldn’t figure out where we were. I stared and stared at the picture. The more I looked, the more blurry the photo became. I was the tallest person in the stadium but it was like I was lost.

yao-ming-and-lebron-james
Yao Ming and LeBron James

But what he later realized about the Olympics is that no one person, not even the great Yao Ming, is what makes the Olympics great. What makes the Olympics great is an entire country coming together to show the world how welcome, appreciated and respected they are. After his team played hard and well against the vaunted US team in basketball, Yao Ming remembers one of the US players coming up to him to thank him for making them all feel so welcome.

In the moment, I remember feeling that when he said “you” he meant more than just me as an individual. I felt like he was talking — through me — to the entire nation. We’d lost the game, but I felt that we’d earned the respect of our opponent.

Yao Ming finally understood that athletic competition in its greatest form, particularly at the level of the Olympic Games, is about respect, about respecting your opponent enough to do your very best against them and emerge victorious, or to push the other to their limits.

I believe an athlete’s value comes from his opponent. What I mean is, our value will only be its highest when our opponents play their best. That is where respect comes in. It comes not when you fear or dislike your opponent, but when you find the best in yourself.

There is a commercial from that wonderful series called “Celebrate Humanity”, created when the IOC realized it needed to take control of the Olympic brand after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and re-frame the Five Rings in terms of the Olympic values. This film is a reflection of Yao Ming’s values. It is called “Adversary”.

Adversary

You are my adversary, but you are not my enemy.

For your resistance gives me strength,

Your will gives me courage,

Your spirit ennobles me.

And though I aim to defeat you, should I succeed, I will not humiliate you.

Instead, I will honor you.

For without you, I am a lesser man.